Why are we over-parenting, and what damage is it doing our children?

Author of Cotton Wool Kids on why parents are more paranoid, stressed and competitive than ever before

‘Both parents and children are safer, more educated and have more opportunities to live fulfilling lives than any other generation that came before us and parents today have the opportunity to enjoy raising their children in a way that our own parents could never have dreamed of - but this isn’t happening.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Both parents and children are safer, more educated and have more opportunities to live fulfilling lives than any other generation that came before us and parents today have the opportunity to enjoy raising their children in a way that our own parents could never have dreamed of - but this isn’t happening.’ Photograph: Getty Images

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When I first became pregnant in 2007 I had warm and fuzzy notions of meeting other mothers, gassing about the trials of family life and bonding over everlasting cups of coffee. Then, when I actually had my baby and it wasn’t like that at all, I fell from a cliff with disappointment.

Although I knew childhood had changed in recent years, back then I had no idea really just how neurotic parenting had become. Whenever I managed to pack the car with the thousand pseudo-necessary things needed to take the baby to some pre-arranged playdate, I would arrive red-faced and harassed, only to find that the other mothers would spend the entire visit with their eyes and ears glued to their babies.

We mothers (I would feel silently pressurised into it) would act like highly paid children’s entertainers on a cocktail of speed and ecstasy for an hour or two, and eventually we would stuff everything back in the car and dash home for the all-important nap. I would then flop, exhausted, on the couch and wonder why it was all so horribly hard.

I’ve since realised parents no longer really meet other parents for a “cup of tea and a chat”’; it’s all about “playdates” now because it’s all about the kids. Adult conversation is rare; instead, it consists of quips about how demanding it all is and then, like exploited workers without a union, the parents turn back to the grindstone of attending to the babies in some sort of hysterical, fun-crazed sweatshop.

The biggest change that has happened to childhood since I was a child is not that life has become more dangerous - it hasn’t - it is simply that commercial interests have cottoned on to the fact that they can make pots of money by exploiting parental anxiety. Consumerism is often driven by the creation of dissatisfaction and it is this which propels commercial interests to insinuate that parents are neglectful if they don’t buy the latest product for their child.

Taken one by one, each new toy, activity and family day out seems like a great idea, but when the family decides to bankrupt itself for a dream holiday to Disney or a super-size me monster birthday party and the kids begin to view their parents as professional entertainment providers, then something has gone seriously wrong. Because all kids really need is love and time to be kids; but allowing children simply be is almost sacrilegious in our busy culture.

During the course of researching my book, Cotton Wool Kids, I was intrigued to discover that this could be the glory days of the parent-child relationship. Both parents and children are safer, more educated and have more opportunities to live fulfilling lives than any other generation that came before us and parents today have the opportunity to enjoy raising their children in a way that our own parents could never have dreamed of - but this isn’t happening.

Instead we have missed the party and parents today are more paranoid, more stressed and more competitive than ever before. The irony is that the most dangerous thing facing parents and children today is challenges to our mental health - all this focus on physical health and safety and on “getting ahead” is interfering with our mental well-being.

Irish people are subtle and complicated and whenever I tried to discuss that all this intense effort was a bit mad and probably unnecessary, most parents would initially nod their head and agree. Then they would slowly but inevitably begin to backtrack, laughing off their troubles with our particularly Irish brand of self-deprecating humour. I often laughed along politely, all the while knowing that their partner was taking anti-depressants and their teenager was suffering from panic attacks. But it wasn’t funny really. It was sad and it was unnecessary.

I have worked for a number of years as a psychotherapist and have become increasingly concerned by the numbers of parents arriving into my clinic suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Not only that but the number of young adults arriving into my clinic seeking counselling is startling. These young people have everything to live for but are paralysed by fear; they have been told that it is a terrible world out there, full of crazies and maniacs, and that making a decision without prior approval from the supervising adult is a very dangerous thing to do. As a consequence, these “kidults”’ don’t know who they are or what they want - they’re more in touch with what their parents want for them than their own hopes and dreams.

When we look at the research, we can understate the situation all we want, but the facts show us Irish children are unhealthy, restricted and not very happy: Irish children have less freedom to roam than most other European children, Irish children are among the fattest in Europe, and we have the second highest rate of youth suicide in Europe.

Many parents of young children often dismiss concerns about over-parenting, thinking “we’re fine at the moment, thank you very much”, because babies don’t spring from the womb obese and it usually takes a number of years before an anxiety disorder becomes evident.

Then, as mental health problems often arise when the children get older - as the author Dr Harry Barry said of young people aged between 18 and 25, “that’s when the carnage will occur” - the parents tend to redouble their efforts and try harder. But trying harder is, paradoxically, exactly the problem! Parents need to try less hard, they need to take their foot off the pedal and, perhaps most of all, they need to get their own shop in order; as the easiest way to have healthy and happy children is to be happy and healthy yourself.

Almost bursting with frustration, I set about writing my book mostly to figure out the truth behind the propaganda -was over-parenting causing more harm than good? And were there really maniacs hiding in every bush?

Once I realised that yes, over-parenting was incredibly damaging, and no, there weren’t predators everywhere - in fact children were more likely to experience predatory behaviour online in the so-called safety of their own sitting-room - then nothing could have stopped me. I became driven by a fury because parents were being sold a very expensive pup and it was causing distress amongst parents and children.

Hopefully my book Cotton Wool Kids will begin a much-needed backlash against the so-called gold standard parenting that is being misguidedly promoted. I have been delighted by the response so far, with many strangers contacting me in support, but I still have to handle the subtle dismissive attitude from parents of younger children saying “it’s not so bad really - and there are a lot of crazies out there!” I hate to be all doom and gloom, but I’m afraid it really is that bad - and, actually, the crazies are mostly living in our own homes.

Cotton Wool Kids: What’s Making Irish Parents Paranoid? by Stella O’Malley is published by Mercier Press.

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